Coriolanus (1959)


Peter Hall joined the Royal Shakespeare Company as director at the end of the 1958 season. As well as administrating the company through a difficult period of restructuring of Arts Council funding, allowing the company to retain its independence in the process, Hall sought to subvert the naturalistic approach to Shakespeare that dominated theatre since the 1940s. In Hall’s view, in attempting to bring Shakespeare’s language closer to that of real life, the shape and colour of Shakespeare’s prose was destroyed. As such, he championed an approach to text that accentuated, rather than reshaped, Shakespeare’s prosody. In his willingness to revel in the lyricism of the original text, Hall presented a notable departure from the more integrative and gestural conceptions of Shakespeare adopted by his predecessors. ‘Coriolanus’ was his first production with the company.

‘Coriolanus’ followed both the extensive refurbishment of the theatre and the acquisition of new sound technologies – what Roberto Gerhard referred to as the company’s own “radiophonic workshop”. Indeed, Gerhard was sought for his input on the establishment of these facilities, advising production manager Desmond Hall on the purchase of two reflectograph tape machines and a record turntable, with Hall stating his desire that the facilities should “enable producers and composers to have all the mechanical facilities they require for making special effects, including music concrète.”

As Peter Hall sought to highlight the expressivity of Shakespeare’s native prose, Gerhard’s instinct seems to give him the room to do so, eschewing the complex polytonal and lyrical writing of his previous scores. A significant departure from the excesses of something like his ‘King Lear’, ‘Coriolanus’ blurred the boundaries between composition and sound design creating, on one hand, mostly percussive and arpeggiated themes for a small brass ensemble and percussion and, on the other, electronic noises for battle scenes and crowd noises. These materials were all recorded to tape and played back live to performance on the theatre’s Panatrope tape machine. This playback was highly coordinated, with the script marked up with extensive “on” and “off” instructions, and a panning cue for each of the scene transitions, suggesting that this use of prerecorded material and performative spatialisation was employed to effect a sense of “scenic realism”. As such, ‘Coriolanus’ is one of Gerhard’s more simple works for the theatre, a score that accentuates the production through understated music and a consideration of the dramatic potential of noise.

510Electronic sound assemblages by Roberto Gerhard, potentially related to his soundtrack to ‘Coriolanus’